With everyone’s favorite webslinger swinging back into theaters this July, ComicsVerse is taking a look back at SPIDER-MAN’s greatest adventures. From the big screen to the small screen to a simple comic panel, we will find out how this ol’ Web Head has evolved since he first webbed his way into our imagination.

Growing up in the early 2000s, Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN trilogy had a tremendous impact on me. I had always had an interest in superheroes, but it was SPIDER-MAN that put actual comics in my hand. I still remember tearing through issues of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN series in middle school. I’d sit in the dugout during recess and pore over every page, each line of Bendis’ quirky dialogue, over and over. Images from that book burned their way into my brain.

Then came time to see the actual movie. I was elated. It was one of the few times I got to see a comic book movie with members of my own family. I remember my sister leaning over to me when a bald man in a wheelchair entered one of the scenes and asking “Is that Professor X?” (It wasn’t. But she was 8-years-old. Forgive her ignorance.) Then two years later my family would gather again to see Spider-Man 2. (Following Doctor Octopus’ hospital rampage, my sister commented “This is why I don’t want to become a doctor.”)

These films would become sacred texts for me. I gave a presentation in middle school on SPIDER-MAN purely from memory after seeing the film only a week earlier. (Why were we doing presentations on movies in an English class? I still don’t know.) I’d memorize lines and make them a part of my moral code. I tried to follow that tenet of “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I’d recall Aunt May’s belief that to be a hero we “Sometimes have to give up the things we want the most, even our dreams.” (I’m gonna let you finish, but Aunt May’s speech in SPIDER-MAN 2 is the greatest superhero movie scene of all time. OF ALL TIME.)

Then came 2006. At this point, I’m a senior in high school. My love for comics had grown immensely, and my excitement for SPIDER-MAN 3 could not be contained. I remember seeing the incredible poster, Spider-Man in the rain wearing the black costume, for the first time while wandering through the mall. I had a magazine ad for the third film hanging in my locker. All I could talk about with my friends was how awesome that movie was certain to be.  

May 3rd, 2007. I sit down to watch SPIDER-MAN 3 at a packed midnight show on a Thursday night. At the time, the movie was… not great. The experience can best be summed up by one particular moment at the screening.  As Peter Parker disco strutted through New York, my 13-year-old brother turned to me and practically screamed: “WHERE IS VENOM?!?”

The bitter sting of SPIDER-MAN 3 would not last long. Only a year later we would get two superhero films that would redefine superhero movies for the next decade: THE DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN. Yes, it has been ten years since SPIDER-MAN 3 arrived in theaters. You likely won’t find anyone celebrating its tenth anniversary. Even director Sam Rami has negative feelings about his experience on the film:

“It’s a movie that just didn’t work very well. I tried to make it work, but I didn’t really believe in all the characters, so that couldn’t be hidden from people who loved Spider-Man. If the director doesn’t love something, it’s wrong of them to make it when so many other people love it.”

But is SPIDER-MAN 3 as bad as we remember? When we look at the vast breadth of superhero films that have arrived since 2007, can we still really look back and say SPIDER-MAN 3 is one of the worst?

Expectations and Reversals

SPIDER-MAN 3 was always going to face impossibly high expectations. The previous film of the trilogy still holds up as a borderline masterpiece of superhero films. The movie had to pay off the Harry Osborn storyline, introduce a pair of new villains (one of which was included due to studio pressure), and give the Peter Parker character a satisfying arc despite tying up a lot of Peter’s emotional story in the previous film.

It’s not the job of a critic to Monday Morning Quarterback a script, but the ideas of SPIDER-MAN 3 work really well. Harry losing his memory early on gives the film a boiling tension point. Peter’s possession by the symbiote justifies him not holding back while facing Harry. Even Sandman, aka Flint Marko, provides a great secondary villain character for Peter to fight to show off his new skills with the Venom symbiote. The symbiote also provides the writers with a justification to drastically change Peter’s status quo without undoing the development from the previous two movies.

Spider-Man 3
Dark! Ness! Dead! Uncle! Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

In SPIDER-MAN 3, Spidey’s popularity among the people of New York has grown exponentially. In turn, Peter has let his love of fame go to his head. He’s unable to recognize Mary Jane’s own struggles with her career as an actress. He loves his great power, but he forgets his great responsibility. There’s something pretty daring about turning your protagonist into a total jerk for a movie to tell a story about the tempting power of fame.

The story is bolstered by inventive and fun set pieces. Peter’s aerial battle with Harry in the film’s opening and the Gwen Stacy crane rescue are an acrobatic blast. Raimi and the visual effects team found unique ways for Spider-Man to move that really feel like the comic come to life.

Then there’s the Sandman. Some of the CGI here looks a bit rough by modern standards, but the realization of the character is perfect when compared to the comics. Everything you could want from a live-action Sandman is here: sand blasts, big fists, even a giant sand monster. The sequence with the “birth” of the Sandman should be held in the same iconic esteem as scenes from this series like the upside-down kiss or the train fight. The scene is entirely dialogue-free but expresses everything you need to understand about the Sandman’s powers.

On paper, a lot of this film should be successful. In practice, a lot of it still holds up in interesting and exciting ways. However, expectations for the film were perhaps too high. Disappointment almost seemed inevitable, especially when you consider what Spider-fans were expecting from a film featuring Venom.

Man and Spider-Man

Here is something that needs to be said about Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN movies: they are really cheesy, and that is okay! Comics are cheesy, but the melodrama of Marvel comics has always been its most important ingredient. The emotions, no matter how big they have been, make these outlandish characters feel real.

Tonally, Raimi nails the feeling of the Silver Age Spider-Man comics. The earnest romantic subplots, in particular, are pitch-perfect with the comics. John Romita came to the book after honing his penciling skills on romance comics like “Girl’s Romance” and “Young Love.” That penchant for drawing beautiful young people in love was exactly what the college-age adventures of Peter Parker needed.

I don’t like Sandman… he’s coarse and rough and gets everywhere. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Raimi carries that tone through all of the films, but SPIDER-MAN 3 is where it reaches new levels of histrionics. The film throws in two intersecting love triangles involving amnesia and evil doppelgangers. It is arguably the most soap-operatic film of the entire trilogy. It is a film that wears its emotions right on its spandex sleeve. Despite the occasionally tedious nature of these subplots, something is refreshing in SPIDER-MAN 3 that we don’t typically get in modern superhero films: a vulnerable hero.

Now, when I say “vulnerable” I don’t mean angst-ridden, snarling, Sturm und Drang that we get from “dark and gritty” heroes. I mean a hero who genuinely expresses emotion. A hero who cries, who looks befuddled or out of place. Tobey Maguire’s performance gets a lot of flak, but he captures an essential element to the character: Spider-Man is cool, Peter Parker is not.

It’s important to note that Peter Parker’s distinct lack of coolness is what makes him a great character. People love Spider-Man because they relate so much to the man behind the mask. Peter is a perfect encapsulation of a nerdy everyman. Compare Maguire’s performance to the skateboarding, cocksure Peter Parker of the Marc Webb AMAZING films. Andrew Garfield’s performance tries to make Peter is a bit socially awkward, but he never feels like a misfit in the way Maguire does. In the AMAZING movies, Peter is aspirational rather than relatable. He is how nerds want to see themselves rather than how they actually are. It’s that verisimilitude that Raimi and Maguire bring to Peter that makes it a more authentic performance. 

The world dumps tragedy and misfortune all over Peter, but he puts his head down and fights through it. Maguire perfectly captures that wide-eyed innocence to Peter and Raimi allows Peter to express emotions openly. Maguire’s ugly crying has been meme-d to death, but there’s a boldness to having your action hero so openly expressive. Sure, the scene where Peter and Mary Jane break up feels a bit amateur, but Raimi sticks to his creative guns. He wants us to see the hurt that Peter experiences.

Audiences often argue that heroes who are repressed, aggressive jerks are “realistic.” In SPIDER-MAN 3 the emotions reach a level unmatched by the other films, but it remains faithful to the emotional honesty of Raimi’s version of Spider-Man. His raw emotions make his victories that much more satisfying. While the script may fall short comedically for Spider-Man, it understands that what makes Peter appealing is his persistence no matter what the world throws at him.


Alright time to address this:

So there are two ways we can look at this scene. It’s important to note that nearly every character in that scene thinks Peter Parker is acting like a total moron. With the Venom symbiote grafted onto his body, Peter’s inhibitions are lifted, and he begins to act without fear of consequence. How would a dorky guy like Peter Parker act if he suddenly had the confidence to be his perception of “cool?” Well, he’d probably wear all black and John Travolta strut through New York to a funky soundtrack.

There’s a frequent refrain of “They made Spider-Man emo!” from this movie. Saying he’s “emo” is a misnomer. What’s emo about him? Besides his Panic at the Disco hair, he doesn’t act emo! He just pushes people and dances around while using archaic slang and listening to jazz music. He’s not emo; he’s just a hyper-aggressive beatnik! Nothing about this sequence should be taken seriously, but maybe that was the problem.

The reason people were upset was because it didn’t take the character of Venom “seriously” enough. The character of Venom is meant to be a dark reflection of Spider-Man, and the black suit should make Spider-Man behave violently and irrationally. But if anyone honestly expected Venom to be handled that way in this version of Spider-Man, what film series were they watching?

The other way to interpret this sequence is the director deliberately having fun with a concept he never wanted to include in his film in the first place. Raimi’s rebuke of Venom is surprising considering Raimi’s filmography. It’s hard to imagine that the guy who directed the EVIL DEAD films wouldn’t relish the chance to bring more horror to Spider-Man.

Can you imagine a version of Venom with the same level of menacing madness as the Deadites? Or a version that reaches the heights of horror seen in the hospital sequence from SPIDER-MAN 2? Perhaps that expectation simply got the better of Spider-Man fans (my adolescent self-included).

Tonal Recall

Attack Hug! Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

While it’s fun to imagine a straight horror version of Venom, it just wouldn’t fit within the colorful world that Raimi structured in this trilogy. If SPIDER-MAN 3 had delivered on this vision of Venom, maybe the film would have been received differently. (While it may seem incorrect to assume the portrayal of one villain would be enough to make fanboys cry foul, let’s not forget that there are people out there who think Shane Black’s subversive take on The Mandarin is bad because it isn’t exactly like the comics.)

In a world of increasingly homogenized superhero films, it’s hard not to respect Raimi’s audacity to do something this silly with the character. Say what you will about the Raimi SPIDER-MAN films, they have a clear and consistent identity. While the third film never quite reaches the heights of its predecessors, to say that it is one of the worst comic book films feels a tad bit unfair. As we become inundated with comic book films, we should be thankful that a studio was willing to give a director creative liberty (for the most part) to portray a massively popular character as he saw fit.

Power and Responsibility

SPIDER-MAN 3 may not be perfect, but it stays true to the foundation that came before it. Earlier I mentioned that Raimi’s version of Peter Parker is different from many portrayals of masculine heroes. He openly expresses emotions, but there is another quality to him revealed in this film.

One of the significant changes Raimi made to the Spider-Man mythos in the movie involves the death of Uncle Ben. In order to give Peter a reason to go after the Sandman violently, it is revealed that the Sandman was the actual gunman who shot Uncle Ben. The robber from the first film was merely Sandman’s partner. With this new knowledge, Peter’s pledge to Uncle Ben goes from an altruistic oath to a vendetta.

This was the aspect of the film I was most skeptical about going into this rewatch. Something about this change tarnishes a lot of Spider-Man’s origin. If Spidey wasn’t indirectly responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, would he become a hero?

SPIDER-MAN 3: As Bad as we Think?

Ultimately, the film posits that Peter Parker is someone who does the right thing no matter what. When the Sandman reveals that Ben’s death was an accident and that his criminal acts were done in the name of his sick daughter, Spider-Man does something unprecedented in superhero and action cinema: he wins by forgiving. He tells Flint Marko that he has made mistakes too and he absolves him of his sins. Of course, Peter Parker will always be a hero because he always learns from his mistakes. That ability to admit his wrongs is what gives the film series its perfect ending in a less than perfect movie.

In the opening scene of SPIDER-MAN, Peter Parker narrates that his story is “All about a girl: Mary Jane Watson.” While that romance may not always be convincing in the trilogy, Raimi sees Peter fundamentally as a romantic. It’s only fitting that SPIDER-MAN 3 ends with Peter extending his hand to Mary Jane.

This moment is a romantic gesture, but it also embodies Spider-Man’s spirit. He is unlucky and a screw-up, but he’ll always come through in the end. Peter Parker will never let you down, and he’ll always try to make himself better.

SPIDER-MAN 3 isn’t much different: it tries its best, and it maybe bites off a bit more than it can chew, but it had its heart in the right place. I’d take more interesting attempts in the vein of SPIDER-MAN 3 than a million boring failures any day.

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